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Why we should be more vigilant about terrorism

Australia is a terrorism target for individuals and groups subscribing to religiously motivated violent extremism. The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) has revealed that in December 2020, Raghe Abdi, a radicalised Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) supporter, allegedly murdered an elderly couple in their Brisbane home. Two months earlier, in October, a Bangladeshi woman — already incarcerated for a terrorist attack — had allegedly cited ISIL as the inspiration for a stabbing attack against another inmate.

Between those events, in November, police charged another individual with planning to undertake a terrorist attack in the Bundaberg region. And in February of this year, in NSW, an individual was arrested and charged with two counts of acts done in preparation for, or planning, a terrorist attack. Groups such as ISIL have previously released videos highlighting Australia’s bushfire crisis to encourage arson attacks here. 

However, it is not just religious zealots who put our safety and security at risk, but a growing assortment of individuals with grievances to bear who see violence as the only solution. 

“The official level remains at probable — to a terrorist attack — and interestingly ASIO’s director general Mike Burgess’ assessment refers to a distinction between ‘threats to life’ and ‘threats to our way of life’,” says Katja Theodorakis, head of counter-terrorism program at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

“Widening the scope from safety to include wellbeing is an important marker for comprehending the nature of the threat: terrorism goes beyond body counts. This is especially pertinent in regard to evolving far-right and anti-government extremism trends.”

The impact of 9/11

Since the attacks on the US on September 11, 2001, Australia has enacted 92 terrorism laws, but the reality is none of those laws can stop motivated individuals or small groups from planning and carrying out cowardly terrorist attacks with little or no warning.

Despite the diligent work of Australia’s intelligence networks, with ASIO leading the way, being helped by overseas intelligence agency the Australian Secret Intelligent Service (ASIS), along with co-operation from other countries and their secret service networks, terrorist attacks will continue to happen.

“In response to 9/11, a comprehensive counter-terrorism architecture was put in place domestically, to deal with the threat at hand — jihadism,” Theodorakis says. “Managing movement to and from the conflict zones in the Middle East and Afghanistan formed part of this, as well as internationally controversial powers to strip citizenship. 

“Community-level initiatives have matured over time as their stigmatising, divisive potential in creating ‘communities of suspects’ was recognised; the increasing focus on establishing an evidence basis for measuring the effectiveness of preventing violent extremism initiative and controlling violent extremism programs is an illustration of gained ground.”

 In Australia, the Centre for Counter-Terrorism Coordination (CCTC) at the Department of Home Affairs oversees all counter-terrorism efforts. In terms of operational coordination, Australia’s National Counter-Terrorism Plan from 2017 sets out those mechanisms. Furthermore, the 2017 Strategy for Protecting Crowded Places from Terrorism has been designed as a multi-stakeholder approach that puts responsibility also on private entities/businesses.

But as we have seen in New Zealand recently, there is no foolproof way to stop menacing individuals creating havoc in a short period. 

“Having robust structures is one thing, but conceptually, the game was played in a small space; terrorism and extremism were the domain of a foreign ‘other’, even when originating from within Australia,” Theodorakis says.

“Now we have to face a much more uncomfortable extremism that’s of ‘us’. That’s a big centre of gravity shift; thinking will have to come around on that. The consideration of language, beyond political correctness debates, is one key area — with the need for clear definitions of hate speech/hate crimes, through a harmonised national database.”

The threat from within

But whether it involves an internationally recognised terrorist group or a disgruntled and disillusioned citizen, Australians need to be wary that a terrorist attack is highly probable within the next 12 months.

“The way terrorism incidents are unfolding is changing all the time,” says Peter Moroney, founder and director of Nemesis. “The traditional guy with a long overcoat on a summer’s day is from the days of old. 

“With technology and methodology of attack changing, I am still a fan for being aware of your situation. Terrorists, unless they are exceptionally trained, who are potentially about to commit an attack, will stutter in their movements. 

“They may be constantly walking back and forth within an area waiting for the chance — or courage — to do what they intend to do. So, understanding your surroundings and the people that move in and out is a good start.”

In his role as a member of the NSW Police Terrorism Investigation Squad from 2002 to 2009, Moroney was responsible for undertaking and managing terrorism investigations. The work also required that he conduct investigations jointly with the Australian Federal Police and other international authorities, including intelligence agencies.

 “I believe Australia is reasonably well prepared. However, terrorism, like any crime, is a fluid thing and we can’t ever stop refining our approach,” Moroney says.

“We should continue doing what we are doing, but that does not mean resting on what we achieved. The issues coming out of Afghanistan will be hard to monitor given the lack of boots on the ground. This will present a real challenge over the next 12 months.”

Australia is no longer the world’s most isolated country where our idyllic lifestyle is immune from the realities of the rest of the globe. Terrorism is on our doorstep, and we must be constantly vigilant in our approach to ensure we continue to live with the freedoms that democracy grants us as a right.


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